Book Review, New Statesman

The Guardian


Jo Grimond: Towards the Sound of Gunfire

Michael McManus Birlinn, 460pp, £20


Writing your first biography must be a formidable task for anyone. Michael McManus's task was perhaps harder than most, as his subject was leader of a political party with which, as a former Tory parliamentary candidate, he can have had little sympathy. He has produced one of the best-researched political biographies I have read. If anything, the reader is provided with too much information about a politician who never actually scaled the great heights of British politics.

Jo Grimond holds a fascination for Thatcherite Tories such as me. As a teenager in the mid-1970s, I remember well thinking of him as a bit of a hero. My mother even had a single called "The Jo Grimond Song". Grimond almost certainly saved the Liberal Party from extinction. When he became leader in 1956, the party had only six MPs. When he resigned ten years later, that number had doubled and the party's share of the vote had trebled to almost 10 per cent. So, on the face of it, he was a success. McManus is not so sure. He identifies as evidence of political innocence Grimond's failure to understand the national responsibilities of his party leadership. It is hard to believe that, in 1959, Grimond spent only one day away from his Orkney and Shetland constituency because he feared that he might lose it. His fellow Liberal MPs were understandably furious. He learnt his lesson and campaigned somewhat more vigorously in 1964 and 1966.

Spectacular success in by-elections - Torrington and Orpington in particular - somehow failed to spark success in ensuing general elections, and here Grimond's leadership was again lacking. Time after time, the Parliamentary Liberal Party would vote in two or three different ways in the Commons. Voters were left to ponder just how difficult it could be to whip a dozen or fewer MPs to vote in the same lobby.

The chaotic nature of the Liberals' federal structure made it difficult for Grimond to impose radical policies on a party renowned for regular snubs to its leaders. Nearly 30 years on, nothing much has changed. By 1966, Grimond was tiring of the trials and tribulations of leading the Liberals. He was persuaded, against his inclination, to hang around for longer than he intended. But he knew that he did not possess the abilities needed to march the Liberals further towards the sound of gunfire; to his credit, he recognised that Jeremy Thorpe did. Thorpe was the showman that Grimond wasn't. He could raise money for the party and was able to build on what Grimond had started, culminating in the spectacular 19 per cent share of the vote in the general election of February 1974.

But Grimond was reluctant to disappear from the stage. Over the next 20 years, he veered first to the left and then to the right. Towards the end of his parliamentary career, he became fascinated by Margaret Thatcher's economic experiment and expostulated a form of economic liberalism of which Gladstone and the Manchester School would have been proud. Meanwhile, his own party was building a shaky alliance with the Social Democrats whose commitment to free-market economics was not always readily apparent. What this biography shows above all is Grimond's loyal commitment to Orkney and Shetland. They were his first priority and he fought their corner in parliament with a tenacity that is seldom found among today's more careerist politicians.